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Dismantling gas giants with nanotech

Anything seems possible in Arizona

By Wendy M. Grossman, 21 Sep 2007

The future is a different country; they do things more grandly there.

Last week, a small but impassioned band of forward thinkers gathered in Tucson, Arizona for the first conference of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. The Internet pioneers spent 20 years rejecting the idea of government regulation. But CRN's two founders and chief researchers, Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder, have been convinced for a decade that the potential of nanotechnology – by which they mean molecular manufacturing – is too dangerous powerful not to plan ahead.

Arthur Dent should have been listening to this

The week produced more questions than answers about what the world might look like if all of us had nanofactories in our homes.

Are humans going to be in charge or AIs, after humans have been successful at transferring themselves into an artificial substrate?

Will we need to work? If we don't, will we be retired – or unemployed? ("I've asked that for years," says Phoenix.)

Will families and value systems disintegrate because, no longer human, those things won't matter to us any more? (Yes, said Josh Storrs Hall, because "We will build it to care.")

How will we define what it means to be a person?

Should we replace photosynthesis? If, that is, we're able to develop better functionality. Do we build a planet-wide immune system? Surely, we'll need to be able to adapt quickly to newly developing viruses, just so no one person can wipe out the entire world.

How do we back up the ecology of present-day earth as we know it? And should we bother?

In fact, wouldn't it be better to move the entire thing off-planet for the final development stages? For safety's sake? Doug Mulhall, author of Our Molecular Future and an environmentalist with experience building water recycling and flood control facilities in Brazil and China, rounded out this idea by estimating that the asteroid belt could be deconstructed to provide 1,800 backup copies of Earth, each of which could become a different experimental biosphere. "And then if we break apart Jupiter and Saturn…"

You have never even really seen either planet properly, and have few prospects of actually going there, and you're not sure what asteroids are good for anyway, but you react with a sudden nostalgic affection for these endangered celestial bodies, as if they were polar bears sitting on melting ice.

These questions all seem more reasonable in the Arizona desert, perhaps because in an environment this harsh survival seems so miraculous that you can easily believe that anything could happen. That said, CRN is not based there: Phoenix and Treder work from San Francisco and New York, respectively. However, the conference's co-sponsor, Worldcare, is Tucson-based, and Biosphere 2 is less than an hour's drive away.

Chilling out in the desert

Two hours away is another group whose intense interest in nanotechnology is less welcome: Alcor, the outfit that freezes people at death, hoping they can be cured sometime in the indefinite future. Quite a few cryonics bracelets are visible here.

There is also a fair bit of crossover in CRN's audience with extropians and transhumanists, first made famous in Ed Regis's 1992 book Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition. Over lunches there is talk of downloading your brain and the need to colonise other planets, given that this one looks likely to be running out of energy sources. For CRN, these are all somewhat unwelcome distractions that do not help get people to take molecular manufacturing seriously.

"CRN," says Chris Phoenix, "is all about molecular manufacturing, and we've been careful all along to keep our focus laser-like." But, he adds, "Any powerful technology will attract all sorts of people who want to use it for their own interests." The notion that we will soon have the technical ability to automate the precise placement of individual molecules carries with it the possibility of aggressive, advanced medicine. Behrooz Dehdashti, for example, is studying angiogenesis – the formation of new blood vessels from an existing group – without surgery.

"So the cryonics people became very interested in it as a way of curing their whole-body frostbite." Phoenix thinks that phrase originated with Ralph Merkle, here to talk about his work creating the tools needed to build things out of carbon, hydrogen, and germanium. You can, he explains, build almost any rigid structure out of carbon and/or hydrogen – diamond, for example – and germanium could add synthetic flexibility.

There's a lot of talk about building things out of diamond. It's rigid, strong, durable, and made out of one of the most common elements on earth. Its biggest flaw is cost, something molecular manufacturing is supposed to change. Tihamer Toth-Fejel, in surveying how to make nanofactories, says our future problem will be an insufficiency of carbon in the atmosphere because it's free and people are greedy. "People will suck all the CO2 out of the air. The Sierra club will dig up Wyoming and burn all the coal just to save the rainforests."

Bring me my diamond encrusted monkey butler

The kind of thing people will want for themselves: a diamond space pier. Hall, who presents an A (apples) to Y (yurts) list of things nanofactories could make, has a detailed plan for a one of these things (PDF) 100km high by 300km long, to be used to launch space craft via a linear electromagnetic motor. He's also designed a flying car that he was surprised to realise resembled the vehicles in the 1960s TV series The Jetsons. The one thing he figures nanofactories can't make: ironically, zircon.

These guys are all perfectly serious, and even if they sound like mad scientists their credentials are not. Merkle, for example, began his career with degrees in computer science at UC Berkeley and electrical engineering at Stanford, and went on to be a pioneer in public key cryptography. These days, besides his directorship of Alcor he is a distinguished professor in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech. Hall has a PhD (and a long research history) from Rutgers. Other speakers have worked for NASA and New York University as well as a clutch of nanotechnology companies.

Who can we blame for all this?

Molecular manufacturing enthusiasts trace the idea to 1959 and Nobel laureate Richard Feynmann's famous lecture "There's Room at the Bottom". In it, he suggested that it ought to be possible to rearrange atoms "the way we want…all the way down." Far enough down, he said, "all of our devices can be mass produced so that they are absolutely perfect copies of one another." (This idea raises the possibility of hardware-sharing wars far worse than today's copyright battles.) "The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of manuvering things atom by atom." The problem: our fingers are too big.

The next step wasn't until the early 1980s: Eric Drexler, in his popular book Engines of Creation. Drexler posited the idea of general-purpose molecular assemblers and also the problem of "grey goo" which, Phoenix says ruefully, "is still haunting the industry". If a really small manufacturing machine escaped and fed off the biosphere, sucking up chemicals it wasn't originally designed for, it could turn the world into an amorphous grey mass. Drexler was thinking in biological terms: bacteria are very inventive, and an invasive species becomes more so if it has no predators. Drexler went on to write the more technical Nanosystems in 1992, though "it was ignored outside of the community".

The word nanotechnology became coopted to describe nanometer-scale polymer science and other areas. Meanwhile, thinkers like the science fiction writer Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil surmised that humans and artificial intelligence would merge to become something beyond our current comprehension on the other side of a moment Vinge dubbed the Singularity.

By the mid 1990s people were talking about nanomedicine. Still, in 1997, when James van Ehr, CEO and founder of Zyvex, used some of the $100 million he made from selling a company to Macromedia to found a nanotechnology company, a professor he consulted burst out laughing. But by 2000 nanotechnology, in its less far-out meaning, was becoming mainstream. The US government allocated $1 billion a year for research under the National Nanotechnology Initiative, none of it for molecular manufacturing. (The EU also has a plan (PDF)). And then a sort of disaster struck: in 2000 Sun Microsystems' Bill Joy published Why the Future Doesn't need Us in Wired, in which he suggested that molecular manufacturing could destroy the world and should not be invented. It's only now, says Phoenix, that the influence of that article is passing enough for people to be able to admit again that they're interested in researching this field.

Building utopia, atom by atom

Let's say molecular manufacturing is going to happen. When? And with what consequences? Phoenix thinks we could have nanofactories by 2022, leading, over the next five to seven years, to a brain-machine interface and, given the raw materials, planet-scale engineering. Sooner, he thinks, is better: if it's delayed until after 2025 the related technologies could be so powerful the whole thing will hit like a tidal wave.

Brian Wang, a futurist and member of the CRN taskforce, has a more detailed set of economic projections as Moore's Law accelerates and extends outside computing and China's economy passes that of the US (which he dates to 2018, plus or minus three years). Wang puts the development of molecular manufacturing at 2015, despite road blocks in the form of energy (which he thinks it will take decades to solve) and conquering space (still hard). But a 1kg nanofactory could, if supplied with enough feedstock and energy, make 4,000 tons of nanofactories and 8,000 tons of products in a single day – making it possible to replace or upgrade more than our current production capability in weeks to months. It will bring with it long-term acceleration of economic growth: wealth for all.

This is the part that seems the most fantastical, like Wired's 1997 Long Boom" article, which projected 25 years of uninterrupted growth. It took Doug Mulhall, whose environmental work has included building water recycling and flood control facilities in China and Brazil, to point out how dangerous it could be: richer people have a far greater impact on the ecology. But Mulhall is his own kind of optimist: he believes technology can solve the planetary challenges we're facing.

"It's the biggest idea since first industrial revolution and will make it look insignificant by comparison."

Simple solutions

First thing: replace fossil fuels, starting now. The technology is out there. (We're in the middle of sun-drenched Arizona, and not a solar collector in sight.) Fossil fuels are toxic anyway, and the resulting illnesses will bankrupt our medical systems. Second thing: engineer all products from the ground up for disassembly so that everything can be biodegraded or recycled ("It's all macro in the end"). Third: create a world treaty organisation to govern molecular manufacturing, an idea he attributes to Martine Rothblatt, head of the life extension organisation Terasem. If you're going, for example, to consider re-engineering the Arizona desert into the desert grasslands and forests that in cooler times covered much of it, shouldn't you need a licence? "There's no way you can handle it through national governments."

Therein really is the problem. A country or region can – just barely – opt out of GM foods, risking the scorn of Gary Marchant. But the country that shuns developing molecular manufacturing will simply find that the technology is developed and deployed elsewhere.

Marchant reserves particular dislike for the "Precautionary Principle", which he says is arbitrarily and inconsistently applied. If you are going to regulate it…well, how? Is it nanotechnology if some particles are bigger than 100nm? Talking about all things that are nanotechnology is like talking about all things that are blue.

But the technology isn't all bad; it's just drawn that way. Lisa Hopper, who started Worldcare in 1994 with all her savings from 17 years of radiology and has since worked all over the world in crisis environments, tries to match the world's waste with the world's poverty. The biggest problem: getting materials from point A to point B.

She tells stories of transport being left, literally, in the hands of God, on various aid projects, so a technology that could get round that, is a technology in which she sees real potential. We are, she reminds us, talking about a technology that will let us put something in a pocket that is as destructive as a nuclear silo. But, oh, the promise.

"What if we could build houses without having to transport [the] whole lot?" she asks. "At last, a really practical idea." ®

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